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Balancing Grief and Love

Except I’m not. Balancing, I mean.

A few weeks ago I came across a quote: “Grief is just love with nowhere to go.” Backtracking through multiple sources, I ran it down to a woman named Jamie Anderson who wrote it in her blog, which is now gone. The quote went viral.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

It hit me right in the heart.

I’ve written previously about my struggle with intense love that is not received. I don’t mean unrequited romantic love. I mean flesh-and-bone love, blood love, the helpless love and connection we feel for family.

My strategy all my life has been to divert the love I feel but can’t give to the intended recipient (at least not in a way I feel they receive and believe in it or even want it) to others who do need and want it. This practice relieves some of the pressure in my heart, but there are several ways it can go badly wrong. Plenty of people in the world will suck up all the love, attention, and support we give them, but have no thought, or perhaps no ability, of returning it. In this case, my painful, overfull heart becomes withered and empty and I have to detach the vampire I’ve attracted.

I’m not looking for a place to dispose of my love like it’s a worn-out sock. I’m looking for a place where it does some good. Because that’s at the heart of feeling love one can’t give – the futility of it. What’s the point of love if we have no place to give it, if love has nowhere to go?

There are places where I feel my love has been useful. Animals. Children. Hospice work. Emergency rescue work. But, aside from animals and my own children, none of these are intimate relationships sustaining me day-to-day. Animals, sadly, have shorter lifespans than we do. Children, inevitably, grow up and find their own lives, which may or may not include us.

I’ve been thinking about this quote for several weeks, intending to blog about it at some point, but always turning away from it into other subjects. It hurts to think about it. I know intellectually writing about pain helps, but loyalty to those who refuse my love stops me. Or maybe shame? Or maybe guilt? (If a family member won’t accept our love, surely the logical conclusion is we’re a terrible person?) Also, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or be unfair, or humiliate another person.

I can always find something to write about. I’ve been posting weekly for six years. But there’s much I do not write about. Too painful. Too intimate. Too risky. Too messy.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Sometimes life is like a boxing match. I have good stamina, and I’m dogged as hell. I’m organized and efficient. I try to think clearly about my choices. I’m thoughtful. But every now and then life knocks me down. Hard.

Usually I cope with vigorous exercise, writing, getting a good night’s sleep, and processing with a friend. I get back on my feet and keep going.

But every few years the blows keep coming, hard and fast, unexpected hooks and jabs.

This has been one of those times. I’m nursing my third upper respiratory infection in four weeks. Not COVID, but one of the many other plagues circulating this fall. I’ve once again pulled out the essential oil, the powdered vitamin C, the elderberry and echinacea tea, the nasal spray, the cough and cold medicine. I don’t usually take medication of any kind, but on this third round I feel so bruised and battered I’m choosing to. I’m tired out.

In between this virus, which arrived Thursday night, and the last one, which departed Monday, we discovered our dirt-floored cellar was ankle deep in water due to several inches of recent rain which caused some flooding. It’s going to take more than a thousand dollars to fix it.

Then, yesterday (Can it only be yesterday? It feels like weeks.) I was informed about the illness and injury of a family member, one of those people I love most in the world who is unable to receive it and has amputated me from their life. Now, a long way away from me as I sit here in Maine with a Kleenex box, another family member (another of my dearly loved ones) is carrying the whole situation on their shoulders: the hospital, surgery, legalities, finances, paperwork. My presence would only exacerbate the situation and make everything worse. I know it. The family member managing the crisis knows it.

So here I sit, wretched, broke, sick, and I can do nothing – nothing. A lifetime of petrified love weighs like a stone in my chest. It has nowhere to go. It never has. It’s not useful. It’s not wanted. But I can’t stop feeling it. It’s part of me.

And I’m down for the count. I’m all the way down and nothing in me is ready to get back up. My eyes are swollen. I can’t stop crying. I don’t know where the cold begins and the grief ends. All this grief, a lifetime of grief. It feels endless, bottomless. I don’t think there are enough tears in the world to wash it away. I can do nothing but wait for news and try to be a long-distance support to the one who will accept my support. I can’t seem to get and stay well. I can’t fix the cellar. A plumber in hip boots with a new sump pump will do that early next week.

How can the truest, deepest love we feel be refused and rejected?

Rhetorical question. I don’t expect an answer. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever asked that question. Some things just can’t be understood. They’re not fair. They’re not explicable. They’re just life. I learned some time ago to cease arguing with what is.

And what is, right now, is grief. I can’t contain it, control it, avoid it, distract myself from it. I won’t share it, except in words. I’m simply letting it wash through me, surrendering to it. Maybe that’s what I need most today. Maybe the laundry, emptying the trash (all that soggy Kleenex), my usual weekend posting and publishing, raking leaves, dumping the compost, washing dishes, and all the rest of it doesn’t matter. Maybe I can’t get back on my feet until I’ve chosen to just stay down first.

How long do we have to cry to drain a lifetime of grief?

Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

This is not my usual kind of post, but it is a stay down, raw, naked one. It’s what I’ve got this week. It’s the best I’ve got.

On another note, I am expanding the site. I’m adding excerpts from my books to The Webbd Wheel page. Scroll down past the overview for the excerpts. If you’re intrigued, you can go to my Substack page and read for free as I serial publish my fiction. You’ll find extensive archives, so you can read from the beginning if you wish.

 

 

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.

 

Wounds and Weaknesses

I’ve been sick for the last week. Not COVID, just a heavy cold, likely acquired from one of my giggling, spluttering, young swim students.

To be sick is to be in an alternate reality. Life goes on outside my windows. The neighbors come and go. The mail comes. They’ve been paving streets in the neighborhood. It’s rained. I’ve watched leaves falling and wished I felt well enough to go out and rake them into my garden beds. I’ve missed being out in the world. I’ve missed work. I’ve missed my friends. I’ve missed swimming and exercising.

Photo by Autumn Mott on Unsplash

I’ve had a lot of time to read, and to think. I follow a writer on Substack, Jessica Dore. She writes about the Tarot, myth, and story, and I rarely read her without new insight and perspective on my own work in these subjects. In one of her recent posts, she explores an old story dealing with wounds, suggesting there may be wisdom in “letting the wound live.” Culturally, we are focused on healing, on fixing, on freeing ourselves and others from pain. Allowing wounds to stay open is a challenging and uncomfortable idea, but some part of me senses wisdom may indeed lie within it.

I’ve been thinking about letting wounds live as I surrender to whatever virus is operating in my system right now. Not thinking logically and linearly, but allowing it float and drift through my mind, making tenuous connections with other things I’m reading, old memories, half-waking dreams as I cat nap on the couch.

Another idea I’ve come across lately is turning weaknesses into strengths. This is my favorite kind of alchemy. I’ve always considered my wounds to be weaknesses. Could they be strengths?

We moved in May, and I’m still figuring out how best to fit my furniture into my space. I bought myself a badly-needed new mattress and a high bedframe to hold it. High because I have no closet in my bedroom and I want to store clothes under my bed. Love the mattress, love the frame, but the bed is now so high (I feel like the princess and the pea on top of twenty mattresses!) my bedside table is ridiculously low and inadequate. I had to lean out of bed to use it.

I have a tall wicker basket with a hinged lid. When I was a child my brother and I used it as a laundry hamper. I’ve taken it with me from place to place all my life. It’s the perfect height for my bedside table, nice and roomy on top, storage inside.

I have an old wound connected with that basket.

When I was about nine years old we lived in a big house in the Colorado Mountains in a very small town. My brother and I had a playroom, a bedroom each, and a bathroom downstairs in the finished basement. The wicker hamper lived in our bathroom next to the tub/shower.

I was a fearful child, terrified of the dark, constantly anxious, with a vivid (fervid?) imagination. One evening I went in the bathroom, shed my dirty clothes and put them in the hamper, and took a bath. All was well (what’s better than a hot bath and a book?) until the tub was filled and I turned the water off.

Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

The hamper creaked. Then it cracked. Then it skritched. Long silences in between noises. I had never noticed this before, and I was immediately terrified. All the unnamed, half-understood fears in my young heart coalesced into the utter certainty there was a monster in that hamper, and my life depended on escaping its notice.

I froze, my book clutched in my fingers. I didn’t dare read because I was afraid of the whisper of turning a page. I didn’t dare move. The door was closed. My parents were far, far away upstairs. I got cold, and then colder. Reaching for the hot water tap was out of the question. I’d have died first.

The hamper creaked, and cracked, and skritched.

Eventually, what seemed like hours later but was probably much less than that, although the water was unpleasantly cool by then, my mom came to check on me and found me there, fixed in place with a terror I could not adequately express. That was the problem. If I’d been able to talk about my fears they likely wouldn’t have been so overwhelming.

I’ve never forgotten that evening, and how real and visceral my terror was. I knew, I knew some dark and deadly horror crouched in that hamper, listening, scenting prey, slobbering, waiting to pounce. I knew there was no help for me. No one would hear. No one would protect me.

In spite of that old trauma, I’ve always loved the wicker hamper. It still creaks and cracks with temperature change and use, but it strikes me as friendly now, rather than sinister.

An old traumatic wound. It joined others wounds made by the claws of fear. I’ve written before about my fear of the dark, which haunted me for the first three decades of my life. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of scarcity. Fear of the adult world I could not possibly understand. Fear of abandonment.

Fear is an old and loyal companion.

How could it possibly be a strength? Surely nothing is quite so pathetically weak as constant fear?

As I was pondering this, I came across a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, translated by another of my favorite poets:

You Darkness

You darkness from which I come,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
for everyone
so that no one sees you anymore.

But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight –

and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.

I have faith in the night.

Translated by David Whyte.

Rilke understood darkness. So does Whyte. Poets. Writers.

Writers like me.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

So much of my writing is about shadows and darkness, the hidden thing, the unspoken secret, the uncertain future, the truths nobody dares tell … until someone does. Someone like Pandora, who opened the box anyway. Someone who blows the whistle, blows the cover. Someone like Baba Yaga, or the child who said aloud, “the emperor had no clothes!”

I am surely not the only child of fear. Perhaps we all hold its hand, or perhaps some of us are more intimate with it than others. I don’t know. What I can sense is its paradoxical nature. Fear defines courage. How often does it define, at least in part, art? Think of Vincent Van Gogh, for example.

Fear defines courage. Yes. I believe that. Courage is strength. I believe that, too.

Then it must follow that fear is not weakness. Fear has wounded me, but it hasn’t made me weak. Rather the reverse.

If things had been different in my life, if I’d never felt the degree of fear I did and do, if somehow I’d found a way to heal myself of fear’s wounds and be free of it, I would not be the writer I am. I might still be a writer, a different kind of writer, but I would not have written The Webbd Wheel series or this blog.

All my work and much of my empathy are rooted in the compost of living, breathing, bleeding fear and the wounds it’s torn in my psyche. Fecund wounds. What a strange idea.

I leave you this week with a final thought from David Whyte:

… the place you would fall becomes
in falling
the place you are held.

From “Millennium”

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.

 

Benefits

One of my favorite filters through which to make choices is the question: Who benefits if I do this? Who benefits if I don’t do this?

It’s a deceptively simple question on the surface. Most of the choices we make in an hour, a day, are unconscious. We don’t take the time to think about them. We go with our instinct or impulse, we take the path of least resistance, we default to our familiar routine, we choose the most comfortable thing. Pausing to think our choices through slows us down and makes us uncomfortable.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

Unconsciousness is so much easier!

Last week I wrote about making choices, paths and no-paths, trying to navigate my life journey according to what works best for me, makes me happiest, and creates a life true to my particular values rather than doing what everyone else seems to be doing and following the most trampled trails. You know a lot of trash gets left beside the most heavily used roads, right?

I make many choices out of fear. I suspect we all do, but I won’t presume to speak for anyone but myself. In fact, I’ve posted about fear-driven choices before on this blog, years ago. Interesting, how we can spiral around and around in life, going a little deeper with each iteration.

Let’s take, for an example of a fearful choice, our own personal economic situation, whatever it is. If we are afraid to keep our accounts balanced, budget, open our bills, call a plumber, or commit to some kind of savings account, who benefits? Seriously. It’s a real question. Who benefits when we avoid dealing with our financial situation?

Any lender or business entity who charges interest or late fees benefits. Our bank benefits in overdraft or returned payment charges. Capitalism benefits if we don’t manage our spending habits and can’t resist advertising. Nameless, faceless institutions and corporations benefit from our fear. It’s in their best interests to complicate, obfuscate, create pitfalls and loopholes, offer “deals” and “sales.”

Who benefits when we put off dealing with a frightening physical sign or symptom, or facing an addiction? Both situations have the potential to get much worse, more frightening, more deadly, more expensive. So who benefits when we choose to deny, avoid, ignore what’s happening?

Who benefits when we sabotage ourselves, when we don’t choose to live according to the highest expression of who we are? Who benefits when we silence ourselves or allow others to silence us? Who benefits when we refuse risk, vulnerability, passionate creativity, joy?

I have never made a fear-based choice that didn’t eventually come back around and bite me in the ass. Most of us know the feeling of “what was I thinking?” Making the easiest or most seductive choice in the moment can mean years of cleaning up consequences and eventually having to revisit the original choice point and try again, hopefully with more wisdom.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

 

And if we do circle back around, fear is still there. What if I get it wrong again? What if I fail? What if I can’t do this one thing I want to do more than anything else? What if the other kids laugh at me? What if I miss out on what everyone else is doing? What if this is my last chance?

“What if …” is nearly always the voice of fear, and it frequently stops me in my tracks. I can think of ten ways every choice might be the wrong one. All my demons throw a party and I’m stuck, locked in the bathroom without a friend or a way home while listening to them smash up the furniture..

Why do I make choices that benefit my fear? According to Oxford Online Dictionary, fear is a feeling arising from the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.

A feeling arising from a belief. Contrary to the increasing fanaticism and extremism infecting our culture, a belief is not necessarily true. We can and do change our beliefs.

Belief is a choice.

As for the feeling of fear, we are psychobiologically wired to feel it because it’s a survival mechanism. Our ancestors felt it and effectively responded to it; if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here.

Feeling fear is not the tricky part. What we choose to do with the feeling is. Do we use it as the good tool it is, or do we let it stop us, take away our power, keep us imprisoned?

More than that, do we feed it? Do we choose to benefit it?

If we allow our fear to take over our lives, as opposed to harnessing it to keep ourselves whole and healthy, who benefits?

No one and nothing but our fear.

Do we want to benefit a feeling based on a belief?

When I look at the world around me, that seems like a dark, well-trodden path with a lot of trash left beside it. I don’t see that particular path leading to any true connection, opportunity, or healing.

It’s not what I want. It’s not what I choose to do.

There’s enough fear in the world without me adding to it or enabling it, even in my small sphere.

Fear is for taking immediate, life-saving action. Or for weighing the pros and cons of a risky activity or choice. Or for directing our attention to a potential threat, a real threat, like the stranger peering in our window, not a belief.

We can benefit from our appropriate response to fear. Let’s not allow fear, or anyone manufacturing it, to benefit from us.

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
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Special or Happy?

Years ago, when I was seeking a divorce, my lawyer asked me one day in the middle of my frustration and fear regarding custody of my boys if I wanted to be right or I wanted to be free.

It was one of the best questions anyone had ever asked me, and I didn’t have to think about my answer.

“Free,” I said. In that moment, I gave up on my rather naïve ideas about justice and cooperation in the process of divorce. I stopped worrying about being right. I understood no one but me was interested in the best situation for the kids. I fought for as much freedom as I could get, not for myself, but for them.

The memory came vividly back to me when I read this article by Arthur Brooks from Big Think. The author describes an interaction with a successful but unhappy financier, who remarks she would rather be special than happy. Her definition of special has to do with professional success. Ordinary people, she says, can be happy. She wants to be more special than that.

Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash

I thought about that choice, and I wonder, are special or happy the only two choices? Is there some rule stating one can’t be special and happy?

Why do we believe we have to give up something to be happy?

I’ve written a series of posts about happiness, inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, PhD. I went back and reread those posts.

Can ordinary people be happy but extraordinary people can’t?

Are ordinary people happy?

Is ordinariness shameful? Is happiness a goal only for those who can’t be special in any way, a kind of booby prize?

I don’t believe happiness has anything to do with being ordinary, extraordinary (as defined by whom?) or somewhere in between. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I wonder if we’re losing our ability to distinguish between temporarily satisfying our addictions, expectations, and compulsions while numbing our pain and fear, and feeling true, enduring happiness.

Happiness, after all, is a state of being rather than a state of doing. To some degree we must allow it – give it time, space, and a safe place to exist. It’s not something to pursue or try to create. It’s already within us, somewhere.

(This creation of space, by the way, is a pillar of minimalism. If everything is important, nothing is. One discards until what’s truly important is revealed.)

I jotted down this statement: I’d rather be dutiful, loyal, responsible, a good parent/partner/daughter/sister, rich, powerful, in control, right or successful, than happy. I didn’t think hard about it. I have chosen everything on that list at one time or another in my life. I haven’t chosen happiness or seen it as a choice, and I’ve been unconscious of my belief that happiness can’t coexist with my standards of integrity.

Happiness just doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to me. It’s not culturally sanctioned. Ambition, power, wealth – those are worthy goals. Those are things that matter. Obviously (so obvious it goes without saying directly), those are the roads to happiness. One can be happy, but it must be earned, and happiness is not the goal, just a nice bonus. The real goal is productivity. The shadow side of productivity is consumption.

But productivity is a moving goalpost, and it doesn’t make us happy.

It occurs to me we talk about happiness or unhappiness as a blanket state of being, but it’s really more like Swiss cheese. I feel chronically unhappy about some aspects of my life, and chronically angry about others. Yet every day I also feel periods of happiness when I allow it and take the time to be present in the moment.

When I allow myself to play in the garden, I feel happy.

When I allow myself to settle down with a good book, I feel happy.

When I allow myself to be creative, I feel happy.

When I allow myself to be who I am, I feel happy.

Gardening, reading, being creative, and living authentically take time, intention, discipline, and energy. Discipline. Can you believe it? It takes discipline to remember I’m not a human doing, but a human being. My intrinsic worth as a being isn’t tied to productivity or consumption. The treadmill of productivity is easy. Stepping off and relaxing takes discipline. And that’s not only me.

The nature of addiction (physical and mental dependence) in any form is that it gradually pushes everything else out of our lives. Our addiction consumes our time, energy and money. Anything not in service to the addiction is discarded, including relationships, health, free time, quiet time, and creativity. Our addiction becomes our primary relationship and those around us quickly learn we’re not available for anyone or anything else.

Workaholism and perfectionism are addictions, along with productivity, toxic positivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, over-exercising, and sex addictions.

Happiness is power. That which takes us away from our happiness is disempowering.

Why do we live in, perpetuate, and enable a culture that relentlessly and brutally disconnects us from happiness?

That’s easy. Our individual happiness does not benefit capitalism, because happiness can’t be bought or sold. Capitalism benefits from an unhappy population brainwashed into believing productivity and consumption will make us happy. Who benefits from violence, division, hatred, manipulating our fear, restriction of choice, and disconnecting us from the simple pleasure of happiness?

Those currently in power and determined to stay that way, both governmental and corporate.

Who allows and enables that power-over stranglehold?

We do.

But we could change our minds.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

 

Measuring Productivity (Or Not)

Food for thought from Seth Godin: Productivity is not measured in drama.

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

Sometimes life seems to me like a giant factory. The owners are busy manufacturing fear and drama day and night, making money hand over fist. We the people sit in little cubicles, brainwashed and manipulated by the factory owners, responding to fear and drama stimuli for all we’re worth (and much more than we’re worth, monetarily speaking) and providing a gigantic, endless river of profit to the few at the top. After a few months in the factory, we’re promoted; we’ve learned to create fear and drama all by ourselves! Now we can model good business practice for the newbies.

Success!

For someone.

Fear and drama. Two top money-makers. Naturally, a capitalist culture would be constructed to relentlessly promote them, and any vehicle for increasing fear and drama would have enormous lucrative potential. Hence, staggering financial power and influence in the form of social media, conspiracy theory centers and advertising.

Information (facts) and critical thinking mitigate fear, so let’s demonize them and weaken public education so such heretical things are not taught.

Breaking our addiction to stuff and stimulation, instant gratification and validation, might allow us to realize how hollow and expensive those addictions are, so let’s not give people a single second in which to be tranquil and quiet.

Changing our belief that having and doing are more important than being, that doing more faster will lead to greater productivity and thus more money (with which we can buy more) will hurt the economy. Let’s make that unpatriotic, unpopular, and offensive.

Photo by Heidi Sandstrom. on Unsplash

Let’s emphasize and support division, outrage, hatred, bigotry, procrastination, ignorance, catastrophizing, gaslighting, urgency, “alternative facts”, and disempowerment. Let’s prioritize making a profit.

Let’s train the culture to demand drama, and richly reward those who disseminate the most drama to the public. Let’s give those people power, authority, awards, and our money. Let’s give them our time and attention, our applause, loyalty, and praise. They entertain us. They tell us what we want to hear. They will be our saviors in a terrifying world. Without them, we’ll lose everything. (Starting with our guns.)

Manufactured drama. Manufactured fear. As though life doesn’t have enough organically grown drama and fear.

But one can never have enough money, right? And fear and drama are sound investments. Better than blue chip stocks, because they perform best in the worst of times.

At some point, we hitched drama onto productivity and conflated them. Godin reminds us productivity and drama are not the same or even related, unless it’s an inverse relationship.

We don’t have to choose crisis. We can build slack into our lives, quiet, unplugged time, time away from a screen. We don’t have to feed drama or get involved with it. We certainly don’t have to pass it on. We don’t have to attach to fear. We can unhook from fearful media, take our time and attention away from it.

Fear and drama don’t help us effectively manage our lives or make positive contributions. They don’t make us more humane or better problem solvers. They don’t help us find true love or good health. They’re neither creative nor connecting. Urgency is not high-quality fuel for life, and it doesn’t help us make empowered choices.

If we want to be productive, we need to disengage from fear and drama.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Overreaction

All my life I’ve been told I overreact and I’m too dramatic, two labels which automatically invalidate my experience, feelings, and any attempt I make to communicate honestly.

Being told we’re overreacting is a sure way to shut us down, especially when we hear it regularly. It makes us question our own experience. It breaks connection and trust. It isolates us in shame.

It’s an insidious form of gaslighting.

Photo by Jonathan Crews on Unsplash

When I went through emotional intelligence coaching, I understood being told I’m dramatic is code for, “Your feelings make me uncomfortable.” It’s not a message about me at all, it’s a message about the person with whom I’m interacting.

As a child, I believed I exaggerated and I was too dramatic. I pushed my feelings down and hid them. I didn’t respond to my own distress. I didn’t ask for help. I trusted no one with my real emotions. I taught myself to become stoic and uncomplaining, to focus on the positive, to carry on no matter what.

My feelings became my enemies. I was deeply ashamed of them. They were bad and wrong and they hurt other people.

Now, decades later, I think a lot about feelings as I struggle with my re-triggered autoimmune disease. I know my current physical pain mirrors my emotional pain, which consists of passionate, intense feelings. Learning to manage those feelings more effectively is a work in progress. I do well with one at a time, but right now I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Emotional overwhelm is the trigger for physical pain. I keep right on keeping on through difficult feelings, but once the anguish is translated into back spasm, I can no longer hide or ignore my pain. Everyone else can see. Everyone else knows. I can’t hide my physical disability.

My body betrays me.

Horrors. I cringe, waiting to be told I’m too dramatic and I overreact. My feelings are wrong. They make others uncomfortable. They’re shameful, immature, crazy. I have nothing to complain about. Others have much harder lives than I do. It’s my business to support, not ask for support.

But my body tells the truth. Physically, everything hurts.

The truth beneath that truth is my heart hurts. I’m scared, I’m angry, I feel alone, I feel supported and horribly vulnerable, I’m excited about new beginnings, I feel guilty and ashamed about struggling, I feel relieved, and I don’t know how to bear my grief, both current and past. But I’m still too distant from my feeling experience to encompass all that, let alone manage it effectively.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

So, back pain.

In the middle of this experience, I read an article by Courtney Carver from Be More With Less titled “5 Thoughtful Ways to Help You Underreact.” As you can imagine, it caught my eye.

Every day I think about this list of five strategies, and the difference between overreaction and feelings.

Overreaction is defined as a more emotional response than is warranted. Who decides what kind of an emotional response is warranted? Some people feel things very strongly and vividly; others do not. Certain events and situations trigger deep emotions for all of us. Do any of us have a right to judge another person as overreacting, especially when we can’t possibly know the entirety of their private emotional experience? Certainly, some people appear to overreact frequently, but do we stop to ask ourselves, or them, for more information? What is going on? What is behind the perceived overreaction? What need is crying out to be met? What are the feelings involved in the overreaction?

Feelings are value-neutral raw data we’re all biologically wired to experience. They’re simple. Mad. Sad. Glad. Scared. Ashamed.

We’re largely not in control of the complicated neurological and chemical experience of our feelings. We are able to control how we think about, express, and act out our feelings.

Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.

I’m familiar with some of the strategies Carver writes about in her piece, but I’ve never seen such a concise and useful list of ways to manage habits of thought leading to “overreaction.”

It’s not our business to be concerned with onlookers who attempt to shut us down because of their own discomfort with feelings. Our business is learning how to refrain from shutting ourselves down or allowing anyone else to do so. Our business is taking care we don’t hurt ourselves as we feel our feelings.

Here’s Carver’s list:

  • Do what you can. Let the rest go.
  • Determine if any action or reaction is useful or effective in the first place. Does this deserve my time and energy?
  • Don’t take anything personally.
  • Distinguish between inside and outside. We can’t control what happens outside us. Our power lies within us.
  • Closely related to the last strategy, if we feel we’re overreacting, what else is going on? Are we sick, hurt, dealing with unfinished feelings or unhealed wounds, struggling with addiction, lonely, tired, hungry? We need to focus on supporting ourselves.

Some people don’t want to deal with feelings, their own or anyone else’s. I understand. Such people will always struggle with someone like me, who feels deeply and expresses vividly. To them, I will always look as though I’m overreacting.

What overreacting means to me, though, is the intensity of my feelings is negatively affecting my health, and I need to find ways to support myself. I don’t want to feel less. I want to feel better.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash